Wednesday, December 10, 2008

ORIGINS - a tribal storytelling workshop

Over the years, I have been both delighted and surprised at the effectiveness of my tribal storytelling workshops in reconnecting writers, directors, actors and others with their tribal origins while at the same time  promoting creative and practical insights into their own, often unappreciated stories.

The workshop is unique in that it provides the circumstances for creatives from all disciplines to make the inner journey and the outer odyssey towards forming more intimate and emotionally meaningful relationships with their characters and, through those relationships to tell ever more authentic and dramatically powerful stories for the screen.  It is also one of the few short workshops I run that  has a production outcome, as each participant is required to make a short film (in any style, genre) that dramatises their "tribal identity".

Here's a tribal film that came out of a workshop I did a couple of years ago, along with a brief introduction by the filmmaker:

"Heard of Billy Marshall Stoneking's Tribal Storytelling Workshop? He has again reminded me of what the essence of telling a story is... it is not a telling at all, but rather a showing - a showing of simple things. In drama, emotions are connected to objects, to actions, to what we can see and hear. One struggles to find a way, the means by which, one might make the inner life an outer reality...

"In the quest to make emotion present, one sometimes flounders and falls to despair. Within the story, one hits upon 'a wall'.... a point at which everything you "think up" is wrong... and the only way forward, the only way over the wall, is to leave it to one's intuition. The inspiration for this film is founded on this insight... as well as my desire to explore, cinematically, the creative condition of the long dark night of the soul.

"The other reason for this film is that I felt that people simply do not know how to make spiritual films... they make an abstraction of spirituality, they make it "out of this world" - and its very realness is neglected.... this film is an experiment in revealing the realness."


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dariush Mehrjui discusses his film, The Cow

Iranian director Dariush Mehrjui talks about his groundbreaking film Gaav or The Cow, and his ideas concerning "tribe" and "tribal storytelling".

Monday, October 6, 2008



In many ways, the short film is to the feature what the short story is to the novel. Sentence by sentence, the language of a short story may look the same as the language found in a novel; both might have recognisable characters and plots, but, despite the obvious similarities, a short story presents a very different sort of code than that provided by the novel, and its language behaves very differently, both by virtue of its scope and the way in which it apprehends its content.

A short film is not a miniature feature. It operates, rather, by an odd sort of logic that when successful rarely propels its audience towards the kind of expected and satisfying narrative resolution that so often characterises longer-form drama. Often, the resolution of a well-told short-form drama occurs in the mind of the viewer rather than on the screen. When a short film tries to behave like a feature, the result is often contrived, incredible or, even worse, utterly meaningless.

Characters who live happy lives, who are content with their lot, and fully satisfied they have achieved all their goals, are NOT the stuff dramatic stories are made of. At its most basic, a dramatic story is about a character under threat, struggling to resolve some sort of problem, anxiety or difficulty.

In long-form drama, the central problem or difficulty is invariably introduced early in the story, and the character’s struggle to resolve the problem leads to ever more-pressing problems (complications and obstacles) that are accompanied by ever-increasing risk and tension. CHARACTER is understood as an expression of ACTION.

In the short-form drama, the problem and the character form a relationship that leads the audience towards a set of assumptions and expectations (based primarily upon the audience’s prejudices) about what that relationship actually means. CHARACTER is understood as an expression of THEME.

In long-form drama, the dramatic action of the story is played out until the audience is satisfied there is nothing more the main character can do. Hence, the plot becomes EXPLICIT.

In short-form drama, the character/problem relationship is re-contextualised or amplified in such a way that it subverts the audience’s beliefs about what the character/problem relationship really means, thus propelling the audience into playing out the drama of the new meaning well beyond the end of the actual film. Hence, the plot becomes IMPLICIT.


Since plot is not just events but the causal relationships between the character and his/her perceived problem or dilemma and what he/she does about it, plot cannot be divested of character. In both forms of dramatic storytelling, meaning is conveyed through the actions, including visual and aural images and the contexts these images create for other images within each scene, and between one scene and another (in the cut).

Every character in a successful dramatic story desires something; every character is preoccupied with satisfying some need that is motivating the character to act.

Those characters whose anxieties, needs and desires are identifiable to us are always more compelling than those characters whose needs don’t move us. To identify with a character means to recognise that the character has the same anxieties, needs and desires that we have.

In both long and short-form drama that works, characters will be acting on the basis of identifiable anxieties, needs and desires, and not from the external demands of plot or the personal insecurities of the writer/s.


Short-form drama that is successful invariably focuses on the exploration of an idea or issue – usually ONE idea. When well conceived, the idea carries both intellectual and emotional content. In serious drama, the idea tends to weigh more heavily on the emotions; whereas in comedy it engages the intellect.

In the short film, like the feature, the initial action revolves around establishing the character/s and his/her/their world. Within this world there is the manifestation of a human value or ideal, something hoped for, or a desire, perhaps, or an attitude or sense of connectedness with which the audience engages.

In long-form drama, this value or belief or desire is presented at the beginning of the story and is soon sub-rated or interfered with by the imposition of an opposing force (the catalyst or disturbance), usually personified by another character (an antagonist) or by nature. This results in the main character hatching and carrying out a plan of action – which necessarily involves ever-increasing risk to the character - to overthrow the opposition in the hope of re-storing some degree of balance and order. How the main character deals with the obstacles and complications that stand between him/her and his/her goal ultimately leads to a resolution that is either positive (the goal is achieved) or negative (the goal is not achieved).

In traditional short-form drama, the catalyst and the quest to re-establish equilibrium is de-tuned or replaced altogether by the dramatization of a thematic idea or issue that MEANS something to the character and the audience. The audience’s association and/or identification of this idea or issue with that character’s persona – his/her anxieties, desires and needs – conditions and informs the audience’s emotional understanding of the character and his/her world. The character is THAT character by virtue of his/her relationship to THAT idea/issue; and that idea/issue is precisely what it is (and means what it means) because of its association with THAT character/world.

Take Sejong Park's film, Birthday Boy, as an example – an excellent and altogether satisfying manifestation of the formal dramatic behaviour one finds in traditional short-form drama that works. In Birthday Boy, we are presented with a young Korean boy, growing up among the detritus of war. He constructs his toys out of the remnants of wrecked fighter planes, and shapes them to his needs using the trains and tracks upon which tanks are being sent to reinforce a faceless army. The idea at the heart of the action concerns transformation – how a child in his playfulness and imagination can transform the horrors of war into something that creates happiness and a degree of absorbed contentment. The dramatic issue is the transforming energy of playfulness and the imagination that inspires it.

The change – the dramatic change – occurs when a package arrives on the boy’s front porch. It is the boy’s birthday – we know this from the title – and the package he presumes is a birthday present. Tearing off the paper and opening the box, he discovers items from his father – an army cap, some boots, some old photos of himself with his father in happier times. And suddenly, it dawns on us. This is not a birthday present at all, but rather the worldly possessions of the dead father, killed in action, being returned to his family. We also realise that the boy, himself, because of his age and innocence, is unaware of this. As he plops the cap on his head and marches gleefully around in the over-sized boots, we realise he is continuing to play out the meaning of the old idea – the transformation of war into something more playful, more childlike. Then his mother, arriving home from work or shopping, calls out, and we realise what must happen.

Dramatically, the arrival of the mother is the coming catalyst for change that will change everything: the knowledge of his father’s death, the other meaning of the package; and we are left with the unasked, but profoundly felt question, what will the boy do with this part of the war? How is it possible for these objects of his father’s, and what they signify, to be changed – like the spare parts of wrecked fighter planes – into something that transcends pain and destruction? Suddenly, in this unasked question, we come face-to-face with the emotional confrontation that waits so unexpectedly for the boy in the familiar and seemingly benign yet loving form of his mother. And we know – with a sense of growing tension, that the knowledge he is about to receive will change the boy forever.

The wonderful thing about this film, and about all short-form dramatic films that work, is how the story goes on playing itself out in the mind of the audience even after the film has ended. Propelled by the contrast between the original meaning of the film’s thematic idea, and what that idea has come to mean as a result of the change that has taken place, the audience moves past the conclusion of the plot into an untold future, that is the continuing story, enacted in the invisible realm of pure imagination.

Sweet Night Good Heart provides an unusual and pertinent example of the re-contextualisation of the problem.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


"The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them - words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they're brought out. But it's more than that, isn't it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear."  - Stephen King

“The world is made of stories, not atoms.” - Muriel Rukeyser

Screenwriting gurus both here and overseas have long "made their bacon" preaching the primacy of structure and formulistic principles. "Three-act structure", "inciting incidents", major & minor turning points" - are part of the lingua franca of those "in the know", as well as their eager disciples, and others desirous of mastering the difficult art of cinematic storytelling.

To be sure, the analysis of structure as presented by McKee and others has its value, but its usefulness is limited, and only really becomes apparent AFTER the storyteller has written a good part of the script. A slavish and single-minded adherence to structure in the hope that it will somehow allow one to conjure up a compelling and enduring film script is as likely as creating a masterpiece with a "paint-by-numbers" set. Though having said that I realise there will be some who will take it as a challenge, and if you happen to be one of them then all I can say is do your worst!

The preeminence of STORY and the conventional wisdom that “story is KING!" confuses ends and means. Story certainly matters in the end, but how do we - as prospective storytellers - actually find it? Where does it come from? And how might we give ourselves the best chance of intersecting with it? How does the dramatic, screen storyteller arrive at that state of being where story-as-intellectualisation gives way to a subtler and more profound recognition that stories are as fundamental to one’s life and well being as air and water.

Drama is principally a present-ation of the emotional and intellectual dimensions of the cause and effect of desire and its frustration. What a character wants (desires) and does (as a result of that desire – or frustration) produces consequences. The character either takes responsibility for the consequences or does not, but his reaction produces further consequences that impact on him and on the other characters and their world, thus creating more consequences. The law of cause and effect (karma) is the stomping ground of drama (including tragedy and comedy).

Likewise, when a story is told, it too has consequences. Perhaps it will cause people to feel something very deeply, or fill them with fear, or cause them to reflect upon some idea, or maybe simply put them to sleep. Just as a good dramatic character is responsible for his actions, so too are the best storytellers responsible for their stories. But here, “responsibility” does not so much signify obligation as the ability to respond.

Successful and satisfying dramatic stories are not created by chance or out of thin air. An essential component (without which all other components languish) is the personal engagement and commitment of the storytellers themselves to the story they are finding.
Metaphorically, it is not so much an affair of craft as an affair of "up-bringing" - or, rather, lifting the lid of one's unconscious, even if only a squeak.

What I am talking about is engagement – an engagement that is driven and inspired by openness to story. In other words, the journey to find the story becomes part of the storytellers’ own, personal journey towards discovering what that story means, emotionally, to the storyteller. It is, indeed, an act of self-discovery.

The attitudes that allow this discovery to happen and the collaborative synergy those attitudes produce take time to evolve, but once underway, the evolution is greatly assisted and encouraged when all members of the storytelling enterprise commit to a frank and respectful dialogue concerning their most intimate understanding of and connection with the story the team is seeking.

One could do worse than ask oneself: what is the story that possesses my being? What myth of self (-deception) is being played out in my life by the same characters, in countless guises, in a thousand various scenarios wherever I go?

The question implies the notion that there is an essential dramatic idea at the heart of each individual’s odyssey. But is this possible? Is there an underlying theme operating in every life? Is every individual possessed, either consciously or unconsciously, by his or her own singular and personal drama?

I believe the answer is, most assuredly, yes; and that in facing and acknowledging the essential characteristics of our own particular drama (or dramas) we can more honestly and fruitfully find, explore and understand how every story we seek to tell or contribute to (in some meaningful way) is in some way connected to us - to our hopes and to our anxieties.

If this is so, then the collaborative enterprise of finding the story that resonates with one's soul and with all of the souls that are seeking it - the greatest enemy is fear and the deceptions (the ignore-ances) that it encourages.

The playwright, Arthur Miller, has suggested that, essentially, drama is always about a fear of falling – the primal fear. Certainly, the first story in Western culture is a dramatisation of this fundamental fact of existence – the so-called Fall of Man. But what is the essence of the Fall? What brings it about, and what does it tell us about the nature of human and non-human reality? What does it tell us about HOW we should live our lives, and why and for what? Any story that prompts us to ask these sorts of questions is a story worthy of our attention.

The fall of Adam and Eve is a story founded on the idea of power and deception. Here, deception must be understood as being synonymous with evil. It might come as a surprise to some, but most of the Old Testament is composed of stories that explore the nature and consequences of deception, which is another way of saying the Old Testament provides a narrative investigation of the nature of good and evil, which includes its consequences.
In the Adam and Eve story, the principal deceiver, at least in the beginning, is the Serpent, who has promised Eve that by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil she can make herself like God. In her freedom, she chooses to eat, and afterwards, persuades her consort to do the same. They have been given the freedom to do anything they like, except eat the fruit of this tree, but freedom is meaningless unless one also has the power to choose NOT to be free. And herein lies the God-like irony, the incompatible addition (to freedom) that aborts through method (blame) and fear and guilt (anxiety) the very power Adam and Eve sought to achieve. Instead of becoming like God, they encourage God’s wrath.

When Adam is confronted by this anger and by the question (Why did you eat the fruit?) he blames Eve, and in so doing creates the first method (for escaping response-ability for one’s actions); likewise, when Eve is asked, she blames the Serpent, compounding the lie and avoiding the fact that it was her own desire to be God-like that led her to be tempted in the first place. 1

Deception informs every tragedy. The protagonist, himself, operates under a deception, a deception that he, himself, has helped to create and is invariably involved in perpetrating.
But deception also lies at the heart of all drama, including dramatic comedy. In comedy, the deception points out the absurdity of human life; in tragedy it underscores its pathos.
Every drama begins with a fall, or a fear of falling: falling out of a relationship, or out of a job, or out of society, or out of one’s life, or, existentially, out of meaning itself. It is this fear of falling that is expressed in the four anxieties that form the basis of dramatic action, as well as the protagonist’s impetus to re-establish some form of healing or rectitude. 2

Fear and falling, frustration and deception and the desire for truth and healing – this is the stuff out of which stories are made. The courage to confront one’s fears through acts of faith (in one’s characters and in oneself) is integral to the finding of the story. It is, indeed, such courage that makes the difference between a birth and an abortion. The courage to accompany one’s character on his/her journey is bought with the pain and anxiety one has endured and continues to endure in the act of grappling with the unsolved and seemingly unresolvable. One earns the experience, one buys the wisdom, one takes what one needs for oneself and one’s characters) and one pays for it. In this way, collaboratively – in one’s interactions with one’s collaborators (including one’s characters) one will be continually nourished and transformed by those inner stories without which there is no story at all.


1 Interestingly, in the image of Jesus hanging on the Cross we find the symbolic fulfilment of the Garden of Eden story. The Serpent in his tree is now transformed into Christ on the Cross, - the being who takes all the blame, and who, in so doing, exemplifies the saving grace of the Christ principle (Love).

2 The anxiety of guilt, the anxiety of doubt, the anxiety of death and the anxiety of meaninglessness.

Monday, June 16, 2008


The art of reading a script is active – it is a creative act.

Its purpose is to reveal the story (the meaning) that
lies behind the black squiggles on the page.

A script is a lure for feeling.

Reading a script is - in part - a meditation on what is
revealed, and through that meditation, a discovery of
what is hidden or implied.

The effective reading of a script is akin to the art of
translation. In its way, it is every bit as demanding as
the art of actually making a film.


One reads a script to uncover not only the emotions
that it conveys but the TRUTH that it expresses.

The truth and the emotions are inextricably connected.
“Truth is beauty and beauty is truth.” HOWEVER, when
you read a script, you are not looking for YOUR truths,
or the truths that YOU believe your society, or the
imagined society of the writer, is trying to uphold; you
are looking for the truth of the script… the sum of those
almost indecipherable moments of grace by which the
story becomes more than the sum of its parts.

To read a script creatively (i.e.: effectively) you have to
be able to SEE and HEAR what is actually there, and not
simply what you THINK is there.


- Elia Kazan



The first job is discover what the script is saying,
not what it reminds you of.

A script is the expression of a story that is to be enacted
by actors.

A story is a carefully constructed series of vivid and
emotionally charged events (action = change) that attract
our attention and compel our interest by virtue of the
conflict and significance inherent in these events.

Some common errors that are made when analysising and
criticizing scripts:

• The Affective Fallacy (Impressionism) …
• The Fallacy of Faulty Generalization (Over-expansion)
• The Fallacy of Reductiveness
• The Fallacy of the Half-Truth (Debunking)
• The Genetic Fallacy (Fallacy of Origins)
• Intentional Fallacy
• Secondhand Thinking
• Reality Testing
• Frigidity

The Affective Fallacy (Impressionism) …

When one allows one’s pet notions or momentary
enthusiasms or the momentary enthusiasms of one's
community to intrude on one’s judgement of the story,
one is employing affective fallacy.

For example, in a script like Death of a Salesman, one
might be reminded one's own father, and be tempted to
make judgements about the character and the story based
upon one's personal memories and feelings. On the other
hand, one might identify with Willy’s economic plight and
allow one's own problems to AFFECT the way in which one
"feels" the action of the story.

Intensely personal experiences projected onto scripts often
produce critical carelessness, and may allow sentimental
and, possibly, propagandistic writing to go unchallenged.

To avoid becoming hopelessly bogged down in a kind
vicarious self-analysis, applying any number of personal
situations, ideals, attitudes, or conflicts to someone
else's script, special care should be taken NOT to project
your own personal convictions or experiences onto a
screenplay written by someone else.

Instead, one should look for conditions that are objectively
present in the story. This means one must separate intimate
personal responses from what is objectively given in the
actual writing.

The Fallacy of Faulty Generalization (Over-expansion)

When you jump to a conclusion about a script without
having enough evidence for arriving at that conclusion, you
are usually talking more about your own prejudices and
fears than you are talking about the script.

When one resorts to generalisations one runs the risj of
over-looking the subtle nuances and complexities that may
lie buried in the script. Sweeping assertions that attempt to
encapsulate a story can work to blind one to a story's
complexities. Be careful to avoid the uncritical use of words
like “typical", all” or “never” in statements about a script, and
seek out and challenge your own prejudices with whatever
contrary evidence the script provides.

The Fallacy of Reductiveness

A common mistake - this occurs any time one sums up
a script by reducing its meaning to the smallest,
common demoninator. To say that Platoon is merely
an anti-war story, or that The Godfather is nothing
but a gangster film is a way of dismissing much of what
gives both of those stories their potency and its drama.

The phrase "nothing but" is the giveaway, when attempting
to articulate the underlying theme or meaning of a story.

Allied to reductiveness is …

The Fallacy of the Half-Truth (Debunking)

This error in logic occurs when readers use the same
explanation for everything, usually with deliberately
negative implications.

When someone says: “Woody Allen's films are only about
his own sexual neuroses," they are guilty of the fallacy of

The remedy is to study the script more than once with
an open mind. This is not just a question of finding any
reasonable explanation and verifying it in the script but
also of testing what connects to what against the many
points in the script.

The Genetic Fallacy (Fallacy of Origins)

Ezra Pound once said: “You can spot a bad critic when he
starts by discussing the poet instead of the poem.”

Reducing a script to its sources in the biography or social world
of the writer produces the genetic fallacy.

For example, the question should not be: what does Contempt
tell us about Goddard's view of the 20th century woman, or
about Frenchsexual values in the mid-1950s, but rather what
does it tell us about itself? It is fallacious for a writer to say
his/her script works as a script because he/she had first-hand
knowledge of the experiences which the script presents.

Remember what the black creative writing professor said at the
end of Todd Solondz's film, Storytelling?

"Once it's written down, it's all fiction."

There may be some connections between a script and some
external features in the life and world of the writer, but they
should not impinge on one's critical meditation on the story
grammar or the dramaticeffectiveness of the script as a

Intentional Fallacy

This error results from speculating on what the author’s
intention is and whether this intention is fulfilled in the script.
The road tomediocrity in criticism - like the road to Hell - is
paved with intentions.

Secondhand Thinking

This error is a corollary of intentional fallacy. It stems from
unconsciously relying too much on other people’s opinions
and judgements, especially when dealing with difficult

Addiction to the judgments of others inhibits self-confidence
and independent thinking.

Writers and others should beware of cutting themselves off
from new experiences, feelings, or words by relying on
established opinion rather than on direct contact. Likewise,
directors and producers should be wary of sub-rating their
own feelings about a script in favor of what someone else’s
response might be.


THE SECRET OF ITS MEDIOCRITY.” (Alfred North Whitehead)

To permit the free exercise of imagination, script analysis
should initially be a solo experience.

Reality Testing

A lot of inexperienced readers resort to what I call
“reality testing” as a way of understanding or not
understanding what a script means.

This is the error of evaluating everything in the script on
the basis of its likeness to real life.

When it is used as a negative judgement, a statement like
“the Ghost in Hamlet isn’t believable because science tells
us there’s no such things as ghosts” is a typical crude

Other examples I’ve heard include: “A couple who have been
married that long wouldn’t talk like that.” OR “Teenagers
would never be that dumb.”

This kind of thinking is a sign of a limited imagination as
much as anything else.

The quality of observed reality in a script has little connection
with the script’s potential for expressing truth.

A script can be completely unrealistic in all its outer features
and still permit emotionally honest acting.

Emotional reality and theatrical reality are completely separate
and distinct issues and do not contradict one another.

Good scripts create their own realities, and everyday reality
is largely irrelevant to understanding a script as a dramatic


Frigidity here means not treating the feelings in the play
with the importance and care they deserve – literally, not
showing enough concern – or the right kind of concern –
about the characters or situations. It is a lack of empathy.

The standard of comparison is the concern any decent
human being would naturally show under the circumstances.

Frigidity also includes an inability to recognise the seriousness
of things in general.

Frigidity occurs when pulling back from genuine feeling or
when only looking at the surface trivialities in a conflict.

Unfortunately it is one of the chief characteristics of the current
artistic scene. It leads increasingly to less and less concern for
the characters, meaningful (i.e.: emotionally confronting)
narratives and commitment to theme and meaning for the

QUESTIONS to ask of a script:

What is the genre? How do I know the genre?

When do I know who the protagonist is?

How quickly is the line of action established? (the problem
or opportunity that starts the protagonist on his/her quest)

When is the opposing force identified?

How far am I into the film before this happens?

What does the protagonist need and who or what stands in
his or her way?

What traits or characteristics make the protagonist compelling?

At what point do I begin to do I sense the theme of the story?

What is the core conflict?

What surprises are there?

Why does each scene work or not work?

What scenes are implied rather than shown?

What are the complications in the story?

What is the key element in the script that holds my attention?

What in the script is dramatically valid and what is not?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Groping Towards A Vision

“Love is the ability of not knowing.”
(John Cassavetes)

The only dramatic stories that are important to us are the ones that start and end in our own experiences.

Examine your values. What do you believe and disbelieve? What you love and not love? What is admirable in human life, and what is not so admirable? Find, enact and tell those stories that are true to your self and tell them completely.

A dramatic story is a reply to the unseen, the unheard, that gnaws in the darkness of ignorance. A person who refuses to ignore, ridicule, or falsify the gnawing is an artist – whether s/he makes her/his daily bread teaching school, digging ditches or working as a CEO.

The best dramatic story-makers are creative and courageously so. They apply creativity to every significant dramatic action they encounter.

Creativity is not antithetical to management, leadership or authority. When merged with story it produces the most compelling and inspiring form of leadership.

Essentially, creativity is the art of relinquishing control.

We necessarily relinquish control every time we enter a story-in-the-making. This is what allows the story to make us just as much as we make it.

The most powerful stories are the dramatic ones.

Dramatic stories are powerful because they are about PROBLEMS and CHANGE.

Dramatic stories involve characters that suffer and whose actions are aimed at overcoming that suffering.

A dramatic character ACTS in order to overcome suffering.

A dramatic action always has a goal or objective. The ultimate goal of every dramatic character is to resolve the problem that has created the suffering.

Dramatic problems require real change in order to be solved. Without real change the solutions that one applies to solve dramatic problems will only make the problems worse.

Change is frightening because its outcomes are not predictable, because human characters frequently equate change with loss.

Every dramatic character is an aspect of us.

Dramatic characters navigate this human predilection to fear change by actively and persuasively pursuing goals with which the audience can readily identify. By virtue of emotional identification, an audience also becomes a participant in the evolving story of change.

The actions of dramatic characters ARE the change that leads to the story’s ultimate resolution.

Great story-makers understand that they are but one character among many characters, that they, too, are going on a journey, guided by a clear objective and propelled by a credible plan of action that might be changed at any time to accommodate the changing circumstances of the story.

Drama, in the form of story, is humanity’s way of contextualising its experience of change in terms of living, human experience with all its suffering, hope, risk, faith, conflict, fear, growth and love.

Characters in dramatic stories are revealed by their actions and the impact that their actions have upon the other characters..

Dramatic action - by definition - either propels a character closer to or further away from their ultimate goal.

As story-makers and audience we must be aware not only of what the characters are wanting to communicate, but also of what they are trying to hide.

Dramatic storytelling involves both creative exposure and creative hiding.

The story-maker, like every other character in the story, is also in hiding.

The story-maker is also a character.

To understand any character’s story, you need to view it from the inside out. Short of an intimate understanding, there can be no emotion, only emotional clichĂ©.

We don’t necessarily know – or need to know - the story we are trying to tell. If we did, we wouldn’t need to tell it.

Knowledge, for the most part, is useless. Finding “the story” requires ridding yourself of everything you know.

What you know usually stands in the way of what you might discover.

Finding the story is a voyage of discovery – self-discovery.

Understanding drama = understanding yourself.

“Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage
to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads."
(Erica Jong)

To be is to be anxious. To be creative is to endure the anxiousness – to use it, shape it, transform it, into something that transcends anxiety.

As story-makers we are custodians of a “dreaming”, which we are obliged to attend to and work with and birth, in order to share the dream with others in all of its potency. The ultimate meaning of the dream resides in its shareability.

An appreciation of the inspiration and obsessiveness of the story-makers, finders and tellers that have gone before is itself a story – the awareness that one is operating within a timeless tribe of storytellers carries a sense of responsibility that is freeing insofar as one begins to realise ever more vividly how all storytellers speak through every storyteller. Those who have gone before have drawn from the same pool that you draw from, and those who come after you will do the same. We are family. We are part of a tradition, whether we know it or not. There is courage to be found in this understanding.

Acquaint yourself with different kinds of stories from all sorts of oral and written traditions, including short stories, autobiography, letters, and oral histories (e.g.: Idries Shah’s Sufi Tales and Studs Terkel’s Hard Times, Dickenson, Robert Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, etc.).

Know what it is that you do not know.

The art of the story doesn’t begin and end with a book or a poem or a screenplay or a keynote address. It is a way of being in the world; a way of seeing and hearing the world; a way of letting yourself be touched by the world. (i.e.: by yourself).

Every person, place, memory, image, dream, song, smell, and shadow, is potentially a story, or the beginning, middle or end of one.

The expression of “modernism” in poetry is the materialisation of the idea that the power of art resides in what is not stated or shown, but implied. In business, it is called walking the talk. It is no different for good dramatic story-making.

It is often what you leave out – what you don’t express (overtly) – but that is implied by the emotional logic of what is shown that has the power to move an audience and conduct the energy that makes the experience of transcendence possible.

We prize our poets because they are the most economical of storytellers - their poems, the most succinct form of the story: the brief-but-vivid image, the relationship of one image to another, the implied comparisons, the particularity of voice, the exactness of phrase, the thumbnails of dramatic structure – it’s no accident the world’s greatest dramatist was a poet.

The inspired story-maker is alone but seldom lonely. His/her characters have more substance than the strangers posing as cut-outs in the queue at Cole’s, and yet even the characters in Cole’s are potentially important characters, or characters-in-the-making, poised briefly on the threshold of a checkout counter waiting for some catalyst that might suddenly transform them and us into another story.

Great stories always speak – not only for the story-maker but also for the voiceless ones. Justice comes into it. The carriers of the wisdom (read: stories) of any tribe are courageous beings. Without courage where does one find the strength to confront the unknown? Lacking courage and the inspiration of creativity where does one find the impetus to consider something from a unique or unexpected point of view?

“The world is made of stories, not of atoms.”
(Muriel Rukeyser)

So, what is your story?

What is your obstacle?

What is it that you can’t get over?

Talk about your characters and their stories as if you know them. Talk to them! Gossip, embellish, fabricate. Don’t simply write them down. Become them! Live them, Breathe them, dream them! Eat them!

Leave your ego at the door.

No one has power unless the story itself has power.

Only the story can empower you. You cannot empower yourself. Nor can you humbly or otherwise bestow your power upon the story. It is the story that baptises you, not the other way around.

The only reason to make choices for your characters is to enter into a relationship with them that is vivid enough that makes it possible for them to choose for themselves; at which point it behoves the story-maker to let them do as they will and simply manage the time it takes them to do it.

A story progresses according to a character’s needs, fears, plans, and obstacles (i.e.: what stands between the character and his/her goal).

A successful story reveals both a character’s strengths and weaknesses. These can only be authentically revealed when a character is faced with drama. A dramatic story is the presentation of creative action aimed at overcoming a problem that threatens one’s well being or one very existence. Adversity BUILDS character!

The onset of creative thinking/feeling is signalled by the arrival of problems. It is the problems that forge the initial relationship between the story-maker and his/her characters.

The business of telling a story is working through the problems that result from wanting to tell it.

You cannot solve all the problems and then proceed to tell the story; the problems are the story you are trying to tell.

The more you seek an intimate relationship with your characters and their story, the more you flee from them and it.

You do not choose your story. It chooses you.

So long as you don’t become discouraged and give up, you will eventually discover that in working as a character with the other characters to solve problems that are common to both of you, you have developed a level of intimacy, respect and a competency in collaborative problem solving you wouldn’t have thought possible.

Story-making is essentially about catching not pitching. It is about listening, and keeping open. It is an illuminating dance of relationships in transition.

As much as possible, learn to convey stories without employing words. Focus on the non-verbal and the imagistic. Whilst the voice is an important story-making tool, remember that the voice of silence carries an eloquence all its own. Speech is tango – both movement and stillness.

Become familiar with the nuances of your own voice…

and begin to discover those other voices that live within you.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

DELIVERANCE - The Archetypal Journey


Four Atlanta businessmen, answering the ancient call of men testing themselves against the elements, set out on a treacherous journey down a wild river in the backwoods America where they are catapulted into a life-and-death struggle with the wilderness’s most dangerous inhabitants and forced to dig deeply into their own suppressed primitiveness with the result that each, in his own way, realises that one can never be the same after glimpsing the sharp-clawed survivor in one's soul.


Essentially, this is a fish-out-of-water story in which the fish are undergoing a primal rite of passage.

Four suburbanites from Atlanta go into a wilderness, dependant on one of their party (Lewis Medlock).

This is a character-driven drama, and the characters are really archetypes.

The Four Principle Characters

Ed Gentry (John Voigt) - Joe-Average. Everyman. The Middle-Class. Respectable and Moderate. He craves the normal while flirting with the dangerous. He wants to be safe and indulges in vicarious thrills. Underlying value: to be secure.

Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds) - Physical man. Hunter. Athletic. Materialistic. Underlying value : to survive.

Bobby “Chubby” Tripp (Ned Beatty) - Appetitive. Desirous. A sensuous voluptuary who is preoccupied with his own sexual prowess (or lack of it). He is both feminine and lustful. Underlying value: to prove his manliness.

Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox) - Artistic. Imaginative and creative. Aesthetic sensibility. A sense of proportion, balance and justice. “The Law”. The group’s conscience. Underlying value : to do the right thing.

The Dramatic Question:

Are these guys going to make it down the river safely, “in time to see the football game on Sunday”?

Knowing what the dramatic question of the story is, we are going to be alert to what stands in their way. And what does?  Nature (the antagonist), as well as their own natures.

Interestingly, the source of each one’s strength is also the source of their vulnerability. Where each is strongest, he is also weakest.

Rape of nature is introduced right at the beginning. The reason for the canoe trip is BECAUSE Lewis is anxious to see the river before “they” – the powers-that-be (i.e.: progress) – build their dam and flood the river. They are, as Lewis says, going to rape the country. But the city boys are, themselves, expressions of the very progress that Lewis abhors. And in the film the Rapists become the raped; the defilers, the defiled.

What is the essence of the rape? Lack of respect for nature wedded to a sense of invulnerability.

The hillbillies are part of nature. They are presented as something to be feared – the dying child – inbred, grotesque, laughable. They are NOT respected by the city boys.

Every major turning point in the film is accompanied by a PLAN, starting with the plan at the beginning : “We’re gonna leave Friday and I’ll get you back in time to see the pom-pom girls at halftime cos I know that’s what you care about.” (Lewis Medlock).

The story presents a journey into the heart of darkness and joins other stories that comprise this enduring tradition of storytelling, from Huckleberry Finn to Moby Dick, from The Odyssey to Ovid’s tale of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. It is a journey into the unknown, into the unconscious, where each finds what he fears most and struggles to over come that fear or die. Water is highly symbolical in the journey, associated as it is with the unconscious, with memory (Neptune) – there is also the idea of initiation (baptism), and transformation.

Dreams are associated with the unconscious too – at the end of the film there is Ed’s dream of water and the resurrection of his most hidden fear.

The idiot savant (Lonny) = Spontaneity… as does the dancing hillbilly. There is no learned behaviour here, merely the natural expression of being inside the moment, inside nature, inside one’s own nature. It is what the city boys “sold” as Lewis points out. The banjo and guitar music at the beginning is improvised, free – the conscious mind goes on a holiday… at this point there is real COMMUNICATION between the locals and the interlopers. It is interesting to note that as soon as Drew wants to formalise or acknowledge the connection (with a handshake) he breaks the connection. Lonnie (nature) turns away from him.

The musical motif is repeated throughout at significant moments, sometimes in the form of reverie – as in a musical memory of what has been lost - or sometimes as a dirge or a slow ominous march towards the dark of the not-yet born.

Lonny is also the gatekeeper – their last connection with so-called civilisation. As they pass under the footbridge, they pass the threshold of the known world and enter into “the belly of the whale”.

The structure is unusual.

What is the inciting incident? Where does it occur? It all depends on HOW you “read” the story.

In the novel, it’s the men deciding to go on a canoe trip. In the original script it’s the men arriving in Oree. In the film, arguably, it’s the men’s encounter with the Griner brother and his agreement to drive their cars down to Aintry.

The story proceeds by virtue of the contrasts it presents and the tensions that result from these contrasts:

The primitive vs the modern
The backwoods vs the city
The old vs the new
The known vs the unknown


The quest to make it down the river- to literally survive -
can be examined from the perspective of the dramatic
action that occurs in each scene, and the emotional
energy that is generated by the characters' actions.
Positive energy (+) is evident when the actions work to
make it more likely that their objective or goal will be
attained. Negative energy (-) manifests whenever
character actions and the actions of the antagonists
work against achieving the goal. Sometimes,the actions
may appear to be positive but are really negative (+-)
or vice versa (-+). The following presents one
interpretation, tracking the movement of the emotional
energy of the characters' odyssey.

Act I

Sequence 1 – “Into the Wilderness”

Scene 1 ROAD and WILDERNESS (Two cars make their way along roads that become more and more primitive, accompanied by V/O conversation. First plan) +

Sequence 2 – “Oree”

Scene 3 - GRINER BROTHERS COMPOUND (Inciting incident?) + / -

Act II

Sequence 3 – “Heading Downstream”
Scene 4 - TRACK TO RIVER + / -
Scene 5 - THE RIVER / RAPIDS +
Scene 6 – FIRST CAMP +


Sequence 4 – “The Resting Place”
Scene 8 - BY THE RIVER (Burial of the dead hillbilly & second plan) + / -

Sequence 5 – “Into the Abyss”
Scene 9 – RIVER/GORGE -
Scene 10 – CLIFFS + / -
Scene 11 – GORGE +

Sequence 6 – “Deliverance”
Scene 12 – RIVER (discovery of Drew) -
Scene 13 - RAPIDS +

Act IV

Sequence 7 – “Civilisation”
Scene 14 - RIVER (third plan) +
Scene 16 – HOSPITAL +

Sequence 8 – “Investigation”
Scene 17 – GUESTHOUSE -
Scene 18 – RIVER -
Scene 19 – ROAD (Church with ringing bell) -
Scene 20 - HOSPITAL +

Act V

Sequence 9 – “Return”
Scene 21 – PARKING LOT (One more question) +
Scene 22 – CEMETERY -
Scene 23 – ED’S HOUSE/ATLANTA + / -


Act One
• Ordinary World
• Call To Adventure
• Refusal Of The Call
• Meeting With The Mentor
• Crossing The 1st Threshold

Act Two
• Tests, Allies, Enemies
• Approach To The Inmost Cave
• Supreme Ordeal
• Reward

Act Three
• The Road Back
• Resurrection
• Return With Elixir

In terms of the film, DELIVERANCE, it might be stated as follows:

• Ed Gentry (John Voight) makes the hero’s journey.
• Ed begins his journey from his hometown in Atlanta, Georgia. He is an innocent man, living the family life and working a good job. (Ordinary World)
• His friend, Lewis Medlock, invites Ed to join him on a camping and canoeing trip. This is his Call to Adventure.
• Ed wants to go from the first minute, but his friends Bobby and Drew refuse for a while. (Refusal of the Call) Eventually Lewis convinces them to go.
• Ed views Lewis as almost like a God. (Meeting with the Mentor) For Ed, Lewis convincing them could have seemed supernatural.
• They make their way to the river by car. (This is where the film starts!!)
• They setup the canoes and begin moving down the river. Here they cross the first threshold, "I edged up more, looking out--or in--through the ragged, ashen window he made." (Dickey, 79) This is where the adventure begins and where there is no going back. They are entering the “belly of the whale”.
• They move on down the river and camp the first night. Lewis hears someone or something in the woods. Ed misses a shot at a deer. (The beginning of tests, etc)
• The next day they move on. Bobby and Ed are in one canoe, and Drew and Lewis in the other.
• Bobby and Ed get ahead of the other canoe and decide to pull over and take a break.
• On shore they run in to some hillbillies. Bobby is sodemized by one of the men while Ed is held at gunpoint. Then they start to move on to Ed, but Lewis, who has finally arrived on the scene, shoots and kills one of the hillbillies. The other gets away. (Climatic test, enemies, helpers).
• They are in a dark terrible place and they have to escape. The initiation happens when the vote is taken to bury the dead hillbilly instead of taking the body and reporting it to the police. (Approach to the Inmost Cave)
• From here they move on to the rapids and the gorge (the Abyss and the Supreme Ordeal). Drew is shot by the hillbilly that got away, and Ed decides to fight “the dragon”, which is the combination of the cliff and shooting the hillbilly.
• They sink the hillbilly’s body in the river. Ed assumes leadership (Reward)
• They find Drew's body and sink it too.
• They go down one more set of rapids and at the bottom Ed meets his goddess. It is a golden tree (in the novel) that he uses to mark that spot. In the film, it’s portrayed by rusting car bodies. (The Road Back)
• As soon they get to land and get help the Apotheosis takes place. A police investigation ensues in which Ed comes face-to-face with a male authority figure “the father”) in the guise of the country sheriff. (Atonement)
• The ultimate boon is when they are getting ready to leave the town and they know everything is going to be all right. (Resurrection)
• They go home. (The Elixir, in this case the knowledge of what has happened)

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Storyteller & the Tribe - A Way of Being

“Each and every one of us is born into a tradition; even when our parents do not profess a belief, we still have access to a variety of histories—familial, local and national—that help to define us. What makes one history more ‘sacred’ than another is perhaps the measure to which it gives our life meaning. For some, meaning comes readily from inherited tradition; for others, it is much harder to acquire.”  -  Nora Leonard, from Sacred History

Character and audience provide the more conventional vantage points from which a screenwriter can usefully view and assess the effectiveness of a story’s dramatic action. As the relationship with character and audience deepens one is less inclined to make judgements and choices based upon personal prejudices and fears; instead of taking refuge in formula, the storyteller operates from the inner life of the characters and the audience.

There is, however, an indispensable third perspective that references the subtle and powerful relationship a storyteller has with his or her origins. It evolves out of the storyteller’s relationship with his or her tribe, and enables the storyteller to view story not only as a work of individual self-expression but as a “mythos” or weltanschauung grounded in ontological affiliations with which the storyteller identifies. As employed in the present context, tribe refers to those ancestors or antecedent characters – physical, historical, cultural and spiritual – that inhabit the storyteller’s being and whose lore, both real and imagined, connects the storyteller emotionally to the world of the story.

The writer/tribe relationship in concert with character and audience provides the crucial lynchpin in the process of finding and entering the drama, and, when vividly apprehended, lends authority to the telling of any story by building courage within the scriptwriter to jettison the fear-driven strategies that all-too-often interfere with the natural selection and evolution of the characters.

In the context of dramatic storytelling, a storyteller’s relationship to tribe operates as both the cause and effect of the writer’s imaginative apprehension of the sources of the story’s coming-into-being. These sources – which are cultural, historical, sociological, psychological, political, philosophical, geographical, mythical and spiritual – represent the totality of tribal circumstances from which the storyteller derives two fundamental and dramatically pertinent notions or insights concerning his or her identity vis a vis the story: the notion of belonging and the notion of separateness. The writer/tribe relationship both affirms and negates the storyteller’s identity and individuality. In addressing the question: by what authority do I tell this story? the storyteller cites the authority of the tribe, thus stimulating the sense of connectedness that exists between the storyteller and his/her origins, while affirming the developing bond and intimacy that is developing between the characters and the storyteller. As this bond grows stronger the storyteller is more likely eschew every inclination to inflict his or her personal and/or momentary enthusiasms and anxieties onto the characters.

Effective dramatic stories will always cause us to feel and recognise something about ourselves that is extraordinary. Great stories offer much more than mere flights of fancy, or some idle, imaginative aberration through which we might temporarily escape the so-called real world. Dramatic stories driven by characters whose actions build emotional energy also build courage by providing and provoking fresh and lucid visions concerning our place in the scheme of things, whilst enlarging and deepening our sense of involvement in the creation, apprehension and appreciation of the world’s they dramatise. Indeed, stories are the means by which the tribe propels its vital energy into the field of human experience, along with whatever hopes, fears and wisdom promote or impede that energy.

The act of apprehending character and story from the perspective of the storyteller/tribe relationship frees the creative potency of a self that is larger and far more generous of vision than the storyteller’s own ego-driven immediacy. The fullest expression of this is the transformation of the storyteller into a medium, which is the fullest expression of the dramatist’s self-actualisation, via self-denial, and the disappearance of the storyteller’s will into the will of the characters.

The storyteller/tribe relationship takes seriously the notion that dramatic journeys – for both the storytellers and the characters – are always journeys of self-discovery. Certainly, from the storyteller’s point of view, it could be said that every story-in-the-making represents that part of the storyteller’s self that is yet to be discovered. It is also that part of the self whose origins are rooted in the tribe or tribes whose story the writer is finding and telling. The tribe operates then as both a goad for and a source of self, as well as a goad and source for story and feeling.

Like the other perspectives, the storyteller/tribe relationship contributes to the storyteller’s ability to connect with the characters and their actions not only in fresh and unexpected ways, but also in ways that are far more intimate than might’ve been possible without a tribal perspective. Characters are personifications of tribal attitudes, values, beliefs, and affiliations. Characters act out of both the wisdom and the foolishness of their tribes, and are in turn affected by the consequences of their tribal-related actions. It is the tribe that creates the circumstances for dramatic tension; and it is this tension that cajoles and challenges and builds character. In addition, in the act of identifying and affirming one’s origins and ancestry, and in the identification of oneself with the characters and their actions (the story), the storyteller – in relationship with the tribe – enters into an entirely new region of the story’s meaning. Looking at character actions from the perspective of one’s tribe also alters one’s psychical distance to audience, permitting another contrasting reference point from which to apprehend one’s characters, including the character that is the storyteller interacting with his/her characters! In responding to the claims and sensitivities of one’s tribe one is more surely conducted towards a mediumistic grasp of character wherein the story appears to tell itself, and in ways one would never have thought possible if left to the predictable devices of the storyteller’s knowledge of dramatic convention and its allied forms of sophistication.

To operate as a medium for character and story is not so much a matter of what the storyteller does, as what the storyteller doesn’t do. It is akin to the Chinese idea of wu-wei (non-action), a concept that denotes effortlessness, spontaneity, or what Chuang Tzu refers to as “flowing”. Every well-told story flows. Every event, every action, moves the story forward, naturally, in a kind of karmic dance. The art of flowing, as applied to drama, requires that the writer get out of the way. One becomes “empty”, unobtrusive, so that the characters can become whatever the characters are, so that that which is yet-to-be can come into being, allowed to birth itself through the agency of the storyteller-made-medium. Indeed, one might say that unless a story is birthed in this manner it can have no lasting raison d’ĂȘtre, and as such, cannot endure.

In the search to discover those tribal associations that may be relevant to the storyteller and the story he/she is trying to find, the storyteller must be open to a self-interrogation process every bit as demanding as the process by which the storyteller interrogates the characters, and with a similar degree of passion and curiosity. Fundamental to this interrogation is the question, who is it that is speaking through me? or who is it that I am speaking for? The wisdom to ask these questions, and the patience required to effectively reflect upon the possible answers, depends upon one’s willingness to entertain the nature and meaning of one’s ancestors and antecedents. In craft terms this ancestral consciousness is not infrequently referred to as a tradition, and, when fully appreciated is associated with a deep and abiding faith in the conserving forces of Nature, what Alfred North Whitehead has called “the consequent nature of God” .

Whatever metaphors or symbols one uses to characterise the tribal perspective, the willingness and courage to connect with one’s tribe are elemental to the storyteller’s ability to become fully open and accessible to the characters. In connecting with tribe, the storyteller gains the first important insight of the mediumistic experience of dramatic storytelling: the fact that a story functions not only as something that one gives to an audience, but as something that is received by one’s tribe or clan.

So how does one come to know one’s tribe? And can we belong to more than one? Or is it possible that we might not belong to any at all?

A storyteller’s tribe manifests as the person or persons, culture, clan or community that the storyteller identifies with by virtue of a substantial emotional connectedness. Tribe is ontological. To be is to be part of a tribe. The storyteller/tribe relationship acknowledges the fact that in order to find and effectively enter into the lives and drama of the characters, the storyteller must connect with the story through a context that is larger and more encompassing than the storyteller’s (or the audience’s) individual ego and its drive to express itself. One could say that the storyteller/tribe relationship is the super-ego of the creative process. It is the conscience that is embedded in every part of the story, the “gristly roots of ideas that are in action” .

So how does a writer who isn’t already aware of whom it is that is speaking through him or her, come to find out if anyone is there? Where does one look in order to answer the questions: who am I speaking for?

Given the complexity of the modern world, it is not surprising that an inexperienced, unfocused storyteller may be psychologically if not spiritually crippled or fragmented by competing allegiances and claims made upon him or her by seemingly incompatible tribal associations. It might even be the case that the fledgling storyteller will be completely unaware of his or her tribal affiliations, or not cognisant of how his or her tribal connections impact and give meaning to the story that is being found. Nevertheless, all successful and truly dramatic stories are, by definition, tribal. Indeed, it is inevitable that the tribe with its complex customs, attitudes, laws, and traditions, will inform one pole or bias of the circumstances that stimulate and compound the tension that compels a dramatic character to be or not to be, just as it does the storyteller. Recognising and embracing one’s tribal identity is, therefore, essential to any storyteller in pursuit of meaningful relationships with authentic dramatic characters.

Most storytellers, indeed most people, belong to many tribes. Tribe, as discussed here, is any association of people who identify with one another based upon significant, commonly held values that they recognise and adhere to. To identify with a culture and the beliefs and mores the tribe espouses is but one example of the possession of a tribal consciousness. To have one’s identity linked to a group of humans who recognise that their very being is dependant upon upholding and promoting their survival as a group, is to experience the essence of tribalism. In speaking about the tribalism akin to human nature, the playwright, David Williamson once remarked: “(There) is something deep in human nature that does find meaning in tribal activities, and I don't know why; I don't know where it comes from, but somehow part of our identity is wrapped up with the tribe or the tribes, or the groups we belong to. (Sport) is a very powerful generator of identity in that sense. Who do you barrack for? seems to be the first question anyone asks in Melbourne.”

Insofar as we are storytellers involved in a storyteller/tribe relationship we are custodians of a “dreaming” that we are obliged to attend to and work with and birth, in order to share the dream in all its potency with both the tribe and the audience. Story-as-myth, as an embodiment of the deep values of the tribe, has always been an essential ingredient of the meaningfulness of drama, whether it is the expression of a Shakespeare or a Tarantino. Only by seeking an effective dramatic address to an audience, after having been addressed by one’s tribe, can the writer truly enter into a collaborative relationship with character. Indeed, a writer’s talent for being transformed into a medium for character is directly related to the ease or difficulty with which the writer navigates the shadow world between the characters, the audience and the tribe.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Storyteller & the Audience - Transforming the Storyteller into a Character

Storytellers who tell stories from “outside” their characters rob their stories of the essential ingredient necessary for producing emotional responses in their audience. Indeed, the storyteller who labours to build characters around the story instead of the story around the characters is more likely to produce melodrama, which is characterised by plot-driven action and characters operating merely as plot functionaries. Such stories are invariably driven by identifiable structural formulae and can become boringly predictable unless the formula itself is disguised. If there is an art to melodrama it resides in the storyteller’s facility to disguise its formula by imaginatively hiding whatever might make the story transparent and, therefore, dull.

In seeking an effective disguise, the successful maker of melodrama is guided not only by those character attributes and actions that promote the successful telling of the pre-determined story, but also by those attributes and qualities that are not directly relevant or germane to the actual plot, but are nevertheless useful in camouflaging those narrative decisions that, were they more obvious, might take away from the story’s unexpectedness or credibility.

In contradistinction to this, drama generates energy through a series of logical and emotionally meaningful actions enacted by ingenious characters that are involved in a quest that is imperilled by risk and danger. These actions are rooted in the character’s genuine emotional needs and desires, and the energy they build and release – when it is fresh, surprising and thoroughly credible – have the potential to evoke powerful emotional responses from an audience. As such, drama is character centric.

In dramatic, or character-based, stories plot is the ongoing outcome of the characters’ desires, hopes and fears as these are expressed in action. Character provides the focal point where all of the forces of the dramatic story meet and are played out. In dramatic stories, fundamental decisions concerning “what happens next?” are based not upon what the storyteller needs in order to move the tale from one plot point to the next, but upon what a character wants and why he/she wants it, and who or what it is that is stopping him or her from having it.

The storyteller/character relationship – including the storyteller’s relationship with both protagonist and antagonist – involves an exploration of the inward emotions of the characters as revealed in actions both on and off the page. The actions themselves are motivated by and grounded in the mutual pursuit of clear objectives and goals, and are may work to either advance or thwart the characters in their quest. Allied to this exploration is the task of the storyteller, namely to effect a transformation in which the storyteller becomes a receptive and responsive vehicle through which the characters speak and act. This transformation can be assisted by employing a vantage point unique to the storyteller/character relationship, and though it also assists in developing the storyteller’s intimacy with the characters, it also serves the story and the storyteller in ways that are quite different from the storyteller/character relationship, by altering the ratios between the storyteller and the characters, and between the storyteller and him/herself. In altering the “psychical” distance from which the storyteller perceives the characters and their actions – as well as the storyteller’s own actions in relationship to the actual telling or finding of the story – the storyteller is afforded a perceptual contrast enables a fresher view of those aspects of character and story that may have been neglected, misunderstood or simply lost in the inertia and entropy of habitual examination and expectation.

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Stories that endure and change the way we look at the world and ourselves almost always dramatise issues that have the most powerful consequences. Prejudice, greed, oppression and faithlessness are perennial themes in dramatic stories that move us because they strike at the heart of what it means to be human. To successfully dramatise the potency of such forces, one must have some experience of them. However, experience is not always enough. To become the vehicle through which powerful dramatic characters and stories come to life, the storyteller must have some feeling for those that have suffered as well as the courage to fearlessly explore and be true to the characters who actions convey the turmoil at the heart of the drama. The feeling with which “Jesus wept” – and his reasons for weeping – cannot be foreign to, or beyond the ken of, any storyteller hoping to connect emotionally with his or her characters. A feeling for one’s characters and the courage to follow them wherever they may take you is one of the surest antidotes to mediocrity and its yoke of predictability. This is rarely if ever effected solely from the perspective of the storyteller/character relationship. If one is to enter into the emotional energy that is the life essence of the characters, and thus become a medium through which they speak and act, then audience is indispensable. One might even go so far as to say that an effective dramatic story requires an audience not only to imbue it with the meaning and intelligence it would not have had without one, but, more importantly, to enable its very creation. Indeed, to conceive and present a story that is told without reference to an audience is absurd, for a dramatic story worthy of its name not only presents change but also creates it in the responses it elicits from both the storyteller and the audience. Until it has elicited such a response a story is not fully functional.

But what sort of response are we talking about? And who is it, exactly, that is responding? First of all, an audience should not be construed as a faceless group of paying spectators. In the context of an evolving script, it is both ignorant and unproductive to reduce one’s conception of audience to mere demographics; to do so misses the important, creative contribution audience makes to the realisation of the story-being-found. Far from dreaming about “bums on seats”, a more productive and enlightened conception of the storyteller/audience relationship, and one that is ultimately essential to the storyteller’s own process of transformation, involves the realisation that, far from being a generalised and sometimes quantifiable mass of potential viewers, an audience is personal, identifiable and capable of lucid visualisation by the storyteller. In short, audience is that person, known to the storyteller, to whom the story is addressed, that person to whom the storyteller is speaking.

When considered in the context of story and story creation, audience is never merely a group of people; it is a person, and not just any person, but a person with whom the storyteller is intimately associated. The association must be close so that the storyteller can gauge the responses that person would have to the characters and the actions by which the energies of the story are built and released. Conceived of in this way, audience is more a tool of discovery than a final fact of appreciation. As such, it is largely an act of the imagination, for it needn’t be the actual person that the storyteller addresses. The storyteller’s vivid internalisation of his or her audience and the critical faculties that persona brings to an examination of character and story is what is crucial.

A storyteller looking at a script solely from the habitual perspective of the storyteller/character relationship is more likely to read through gaps or contradictions in the emotional logic whilst, at the same time, reading energy into stale or unenergetic action; whereas the imaginative other – the storyteller as audience – functions very much as Hemingway once described it, as “a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.”

In many ways, the storyteller’s relationship with his/her audience parallels the storyteller/character relationship, for just as the story is not entirely from the storyteller but depends upon the active participation of storyteller and character, so too does a story require audience to which it can be directed and through which its power and effectiveness can be challenged and tested. To say that a storyteller can tell an effective dramatic story without the slightest hint as to its audience is on a par with saying that characters are irrelevant to the creation of emotionally compelling stories. Dramatic stories require both characters AND audiences.

This second vantage point – the storyteller/audience relationship – explores story from the perspective of it being something that is told to someone. It embraces the notion that every well-told story has a good reason for being told, and that that reason is as important a factor in its successful expression as the language that is employed to express it. Hence, the experience of developing a dramatic story is not unlike the experience of entering into an engrossing and life-changing conversation, not only with one’s characters but with the person who needs to hear and see such a story enacted. Indeed, that person – or audience – might even provide an important reason for the story’s coming-into-being.

This dialogue between the storyteller and the audience may at first be largely unconscious, but even at the unconscious level it works to increase the storyteller’s sensitivity to and awareness of where and how the storyteller has intruded into the story. The storyteller’s awareness concerning both his or her unproductive intrusions, as well as those authentic expressions that evolve organically out of the character’s needs or fears or desires, increases as the storyteller becomes ever more conscious and sensitive to audience. Indeed, the ear whose innate understanding of what rings true and what does not, belongs largely to the audience, or least the storyteller/audience relationship.

In the process of “disappearing” into the storyteller/character relationship, the storyteller is still capable of aiding and abetting the dissipation of energy by unconsciously asserting his or her will over the will of the characters themselves. In the act of performing the role of the unseen player, the writer’s first goal is not to find the story that is trying to get itself told, but to answer the needs of the storyteller’s own prejudices and anxieties. The storyteller/audience relationship enables the storyteller to lose him/herself completely without losing sight of who the story actually belongs to – i.e.: the characters. In one’s relationship with audience, one is able to lose oneself completely in order to find oneself as character, and to challenge the wilful and unproductive intrusion of this “character” into the life of the story.

From the screenwriter’s point of view, the critical distance afforded by the storyteller/audience perspective is what renders the re-writing process meaningful, in that it calls the writer’s attention to the fact that an essential element of the re-writing process is a meditative encounter with both character and story. It is, in fact, a necessary part of the process of finding and entering more deeply into a relationship with the characters. From the perspective of audience, the writer is transformed into “character” whose prejudices and choices are now open to same sort of scrutiny that was once reserved only for the characters in the script. As such, the storyteller/audience relationship can be understood as an audience/character relationship in which the storyteller becomes an implicit character operating within the context of the other characters and their quest. It provides the critical vantage point that allows the storyteller to retain what is useful to the empowerment of the characters while at the same time giving the storyteller the strength and confidence to jettison whatever might be irrelevant, including the storyteller-as-manipulator with all of its accompanying airs, pretensions, doubts and delusions. Certainly, the storyteller who ignores this relationship does so at his/her own peril, for to create with a sense that no one is listening or watching virtually guarantees no one will be.

To ask who is my audience is to confront the crucial critical question: why do I care?

The ultimate answer to this question resides with the characters and with the energies that are being built or released in, by and through their actions. But isolated from audience, the storyteller lacks the necessary perspective to ascertain the effectiveness of the actions produced out of the storyteller/character relationship. In order to get close enough to the characters so that they can begin to actually answer the question, the storyteller must be able to view characters from a third perspective.